Oranges and Sunshine

 
Mr Kitson, agent-general for Western Australia, with two young children about to depart for Australia (18 Dec 1948) Many of the children were told a life of adventure awaited them in Australia

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Of all the stories that I have covered in Australia, few have been as moving or enraging as the treatment of the British child migrants.

It was also the story where I probably came closest to crossing the line that separates journalism from advocacy. At the time, victims were pressing for an apology from the British government, which ultimately came to be delivered by the then prime minister, Gordon Brown, in February last year.

Yet how could one not be angered by the treatment of more than 150,000 children who were forcibly relocated from Britain to corners of its empire and commonwealth - a practice that continued until the late 1960s? More than 7,000 children were shipped to Australia, and many were tricked into thinking they were embarking on a life of adventure and abundance.

Many ended up in orphanages and institutions where they were treated harshly and in many instances physically and sexually abused. Some were told they were orphans, the cruellest of fictions, since often their parents were still alive.

Many parents were informed by officials that their children had been adopted by British families, when they had actually been shipped abroad - castaways of the empire.

I well remember writing this story, and thinking that I must have got things terribly wrong. It was simply too bad to be true. But the sin was of omission. The piece merely scratched at the surface, and told the stories of only a few child migrants and highlighted just a few instances of abuse.

Many child migrants were promised oranges and sunshine on arrival in Australia, which is the title of a new film chronicling their plight that goes on general release next month - it has been out for a few months in Britain already.

It follows the story of Margaret Humphreys, the Nottingham social worker who first became aware of the problem when a child migrant contacted her from Sydney in the hope of retracing her British parents.

Official denial

Disbelief at the treatment of the children quickly turns to outrage when she realises how many youngsters were affected and how little successive British and Australian governments had done to assist them - or even publicly acknowledge their existence. The policy in both hemispheres was one of official denial.

Mr Kitson, agent-general for Western Australia, with two young children about to depart for Australia (18 Dec 1948) Many of the children were told a life of adventure awaited them in Australia

Margaret Humphreys, who is played by the actress Emily Watson in the film, has essentially ended up commuting between Nottingham and Australia for the past three decades.

Documenting the full extent of the problem - the most Herculean of tasks given the numbers involved - exposing criminal abuse, counselling the victims and reuniting separated families has become her life's work. Emily Watson captures her sensitivity, steeliness and bravery - for there were times when her safety was at risk.

Her husband, Merv, who played a key role in the investigation, also emerges as a hero. So, too, does Nottinghamshire County Council, which helped fund their early work.

Two of Australia's finest actors, Hugo Weaving and David Wenham, play child migrants struggling, in their very different ways, to make sense of the deception and mistreatment that scarred them so profoundly.

As an aside, Adelaide doubles as Perth in the 1980s, because the capital of Western Australia now looks so shiny and new.

I saw the movie at its Sydney premiere on Monday night, and it's a very affecting piece of cinema. Directing his first film, Jim Loach - the son of Ken - has done a fine job. I should have taken tissues, and would urge you to do so.

For those unaware of the story of the child migrants - it was little known until the Observer newspaper in Britain shone a spotlight on the Humphreys work in 1987 - the film will be deeply upsetting. For those who know the story, Oranges and Sunshine still has the capacity to shock.

 
Nick Bryant Article written by Nick Bryant Nick Bryant New York correspondent

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 20.

    sushi@17: Absolutely - historically the removal of kids by the authorities has often had far more to do with punishing or eliminating the various minority groups to which society has taken a dislike than 'child protection'. Consider the current fad for taking 'obese' kids into care on the claim that it's the result of parental neglect or abuse, despite credible studies which conclude otherwise.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 19.

    The enormity of that decision by the Labour Clement Attlee Govt to systematically despatch the offspring of Britain to the far flung reaches of the globe is akin to the nacht und neble ( night and fog ) program that the Nazis dreamed up to traumatise the families of those that they had kidnapped and sent away ! Their families were kept in the dark as to their whereabouts, or even if they lived !

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 18.

    @blefescu Many of these children DID have parents. Some of the parents thought they were putting their children in care short term only to discover they had been sent overseas. There was a lot of social upheaval following both WWI and WW2, women were widowed, men came back from war emotional wrecks. Some parents just couldn't cope financially. It's a national disgrace that this happened.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 17.

    what the British Govt did was outrageous and shameful. But it was the perceived wisdom at the time.

    the challenge is - what is the perceived wisdom of today? what are we doing that we think is 'the best' for our kids, in the UK and Oz?

    Nick also has a story on the UN's attack on Aus for its treatment of its indigenous people & migrants - inc kids. It is a blot on your landscape.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 16.

    My Father was a British orphan sent out at the age of 9. He went thought significant hardship in his younger life but turnout very successful. Even living though such an experience, he is a very positive person and says being sent to Australia is the best thing that could have ever happen to him. He would never live anywhere else.

 

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